In his State of the Union address last month, President Obama avoided any deep discussion of global trade and the proposed agreements his administration is trying to complete -- leaving some to wonder if the president was still committed to what had been a core piece of his economic agenda. In the days since, the difficult politics of the issue got even worse. Labor, environmental and some other core
Democratic groups are already mobilizing against the president's trade push, and the two top Congressional Democrats -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) -- came out against legislation likely needed for any future trade treaties to move forward.
In what is becoming an uphill battle, U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman on Tuesday continued the long climb in a speech billed as a major effort to reconcile the free trade agreements that the administration is negotiating with Asia and Europe with a progressive labor, environmental and jobs-oriented agenda.
The remarks coincided with President Obama's trip this week to Mexico for meetings with President Enrique Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who with Obama run the three countries that opened their borders to each other 20 years ago under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
As trade agreements go NAFTA is a bit of a touchstone -- a reference point that both sides use to score points, either noting how auto and other plants in the U.S. moved a few miles south to take advantage of cheap labor, or arguing that the integration of three very different economies models how an efficient world system could be organized.
At the Center for American Progress, Froman argued that critics of the administration's current trade push are replaying the debates of the early 90s -- rather than acknowledging that trade policy needs to catchup with the advance of the internet, other technolgy, the rise of China, and a general reshaping of global commerce over the past quarter century. There is, he insisted, a way to build trade agreements that can advance labor and environmental standards, build middle class incomes in the U.S., and be profitable for American companies -- not, as critics argue, simply streamline their ability to offshore.
"We face a choice," he said. "Work to raise the standards or stay on the sidelines as other countries write the rules."
The remarks included a dose of realpolitic -- specifically an effort to respond to longstanding criticism that the administration has been negotiating the new agreements without adequate input from Congress or advocacy groups. Froman said USTR is expanding a system of outside committees it uses to get advice on trade policy so that it includes "a new forum for experts on issues like public health, development and consumer safety" -- areas where advocacy groups have been most critical of the administration.
He also promised more detailed public updates on the status of the 12-nation TransPacific Partnership and a separate agreement being discussed with the European Union.
But the address was largely an effort to reframe an issue where the administration, at least publicly, has been suffering the death of a thousand cuts -- with lawmakers on both sides setting difficult demands, advocacy groups generating public petitions in opposition, and trade skeptics focusing on the disruptive aspects of globlization rather than its benefits.
His pitch was based both on the importance of U.S. leadership and on the economic realities of today's world. There was the usual statistical aside -- how exports lead to jobs and boost incomes, an argument opponents of the trade agreements counter with their own statistical arguments about the impact of trade deficits and job losses.
But Froman's key argument was a broader one: that globalization is here, likely to deepen, and that while it has been disruptive to individual workers it has also "proven to be the most powerful force for alleviating poverty and raising living standards around the world" -- a point often missing from domestic trade discussions. U.S. imports may, for example, displace some U.S. workers if factories migrate abroad, but they also provide jobs in poorer developing countries, have arguably furthered political liberalization in some places, moderated inflation in the United States and provided key new supply sources for goods used by American manufacturers.
The choice, Froman said, is to ignore that reality or navigate it -- presumably through agreements that would build stronger labor, environmental, intellectual property rules and other regulations into the global trading system, and let more U.S. goods be sold overseas. To the degree that U.S. energy supplies are making the country more attractive as a place to manufacture, he argued, that advantage will best be exploited if the country has open access to more of the world.
"The pace of...globalization and technological change is not slowing down," says a working draft of the speech. " The question is not whether we can roll back the tide of globalization. The question is whether we are going to shape it or be shaped by it."